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In a charming old two-story pink house on the corner of a quiet Little Havana street, several middle-age folks are gathered at a dining table for lunch. Some appear medicated and sit with their arms folded, staring into space with glazed eyes. Others lean together, communicating in whispers.
The pungent scent of frying food and the buzzing chatter of an unseen cook waft out of the nearby kitchen. A man at the table stirs from a nap, raises his head from his shoulder, and rubs his palms hungrily while sniffing the air.
Standing in the sunny parlor of Delta House, an adult assisted-living facility, artist Eric Holmes greets Juan Martin, executive director of the National Art Exhibitions by the Mentally Ill (NAEMI), with a beaming gap-toothed grin. The Colombian-born self-taught artist is barefoot and wearing a long-sleeve camouflage shirt and jeans. Salt-and-pepper shoulder-length hair, black wire glasses, and scruffy, nicotine-stained chin fuzz frame his weathered face. He looks like a hippie version of a Civil War general.
Martin is exhibiting one of Holmes's expressionistic portraits in the "20th Annual NAEMI Art Exhibition," which opened last Friday at the MCPA Gallery about a mile up the road. Two dozen local, national, and international outsider artists are exhibiting close to 50 mixed-media works in the enticing show.
British art critic Roger Cardinal coined the term outsider art in 1972 as a an English synonym for art brut, or raw art, a label French artist Jean Dubuffet employed in the Fifties to describe art created by insane asylum patients.
Dubuffett argued that mainstream culture asphixiated a "pure and genuine creative impulse." He and others found inspiration in the "exalted feverishness" of these works.
Cardinal's term broadened the scope to include other self-taught or naive artists who had never been institutionalized. Today the label outsider art is used even more loosely, describing art produced outside the "art world" mainstream, regardless of the circumstances of its creation or its content.
These and other forms of marginalized expression have soared in popularity the past two decades. An annual fair was inaugurated in New York in 1992, and major museums have organized outsider art shows that have toured the country.
"Throughout the history of the avant garde, well-known figures from the surrealists to Dubuffet have looked to the work of the mentally ill for inspiration," Martin says.
All of the works on display at the NAEMI show are priced from $100 to $300. "We want collectors to support these amazing artists, and with the exception of $25 from each piece sold, all of the money goes directly to the artist."
The cover of the exhibition invitation is Holmes's Perestroika, which depicts the chalky-white, childlike face of a male with an Orville Redenbacher-style carrot-top over a muddy earth-tone and yellow field. Scrawled on the bottom of the composition, where the artist's signature should be, is the painting's title in blue letters. The phrase the guillotine Hovers over head floats on the surface slightly right of where the figure's head meets his neck. A tarry swath of black paint slices across the top of the picture, interrupted by a crimson smear.
Holmes leads his visitors to a bright second-floor space he shares with the man who had been napping at the table downstairs. The drowsy roommate shuffles behind him and silently sits on a twin bed.
On a wall above a dresser hangs a painting of a young blond woman clutching a bible to her chest. The girl's name, "Jane," is exuberantly spelled above her head.
"She's a virgin goddess," mumbles Holmes. His motionless roommate suddenly becomes animated, sharply nodding his head while muffling laughter with his hands.
"I painted Jane from a snapshot I took of her in Carmel," recalls the 61-year-old Holmes. "I heard she got married 20 years ago, but I painted her as if she was still a virgin. She was a major relationship. Her father thought I was crazy. He was the one who put me in the madhouse in the first place, you know?"
On the floor next to the dresser, dozens of Holmes's paintings of daisies, Easter Island idols, and friends' faces are stacked like old records at a garage sale.
"What I most admire about Eric is his free, spontaneous style, both in his work and his life," Martin says. "His work and life is similar to what you see in children."
As Martin fingers through them, Holmes points out his makeshift "studio," which is about four-by-four feet in size and crammed under a window-unit air conditioner.
He paints on found wood and other scraps people bring him. Plastic containers hold his brushes, and tubes of paint line the floor. On the top of a silver boombox next to his paints, Holmes has written "Plato," "Jesus," and "El Che."
"I got the idea from the end of Finnegans Wake," he cracks.
Holmes, who earned a history degree at the University of Pennsylvania, says he began painting in an art therapy program in 1977 at a facility in Philadelphia called "The Institute."
But it was at another facility in California that he says he discovered the inspiration for much of his work.